When Marea Colombo steps on stage this evening, neither she nor her director know exactly what might happen.
Colombo, a passionate improviser, is known to go off-script on the odd occasion or two or three - which can be slightly confusing for her support crew, but lots of fun for her.
In the case of Colombo and co-writer and director Bronwyn Wallace’s production of Gaslight Me, which they have done numerous times, it means each show has been different.
"That’s why Bron has to tech, it’s not what’s on the page," Colombo says.
Luckily, Wallace knows what to expect.
"Whatever we wrote the cue to be, Marea will improv something. It’s never, ever the same, it’s super cool."
The organiser of the pair - she has a master’s in event management - Wallace has always been a keen writer, and in Colombo found a kindred spirit when they met up for breakfast one day in the pandemic, pre-lockdown.
They had both returned to the city they had grown up in and decided they should remain here and "make art".
"We had a lot of time to think during lockdown and then saw a show together and after the show thought ‘we could do that’.
"We’ve got stories to tell. We’ve done writing before, it’s something we’re really passionate about and we really wanted to create a space you could tell stories that matter but not take them too seriously, especially after the pandemic," Wallace says.
"We were like we literally can’t go overseas because of the pandemic, and also we’ve already been overseas. We also resent the ‘get good overseas to bring home’ - like why can’t we be good and get good at home, and raise those around us up as well?"
Colombo says they wanted to re-look at what it meant to do a one-woman show.
"In a lot of ways that is a saturated market - maybe not in Dunedin so much - but globally with the emergence of things like Fleabag ... but we just were like how can we put our own spin on it?
"How can we make comedy deeply feminine, deeply queer, deeply Dunedin?"
The pair had already been involved with another Dunedin Fringe show, Daddy Issues, with another group, which did well.
"We kept getting these signs that we could do it."
Yet both thought they had to leave Dunedin to be successful in their fields.
Colombo started out as a dancer and travelled overseas following her career before she came back to Dunedin and took over the choreography for the Capping Show. She also completed a PhD in social psychology in 2018.
A friend suggested she should give comedy a go, so she did and discovered improvisational theatre. She has gone on to be the artistic director for Improsaurus, Dunedin’s improv troupe.
"Improv was the first time I’d acted on stage, not danced, and it just kept rolling. Dunedin’s like that. Writing Daddy Issues was the first time."
Wallace, meanwhile, has been writing "forever".
"It was a real passion of mine as a kid, and then when I got to uni I did theatre studies and gender studies and I was working at the Fortune and I could see all these other jobs that weren’t acting, and all the other ways you can build a career in the arts."
That was a relief for Wallace, who found acting was not her thing.
"I didn’t enjoy performing at all, but when you’re doing drama classes you have to act. I’ll do it but it’s not my vibe, and I discovered directing and producing through uni as well."
"It was crazy. This is the thing I enjoy. I like to facilitate other people being in the limelight. I don’t like to be in the limelight."
So creating Late Bloomers theatre company with Colombo felt like the perfect "morphing" of both their skills.
"We both get to write, doing something we enjoy, and I get to produce and direct in a way I really enjoy and Marea gets to charm on stage in the way she enjoys."
Colombo says "I’m a righteous stage hog, I love it".
Being on stage alone does not faze her, as she knows Wallace is there in the background "shuffling papers" or peeking under the curtain.
"It never feels alone and I always think of the audience as an actor, as you never know what an audience is going to respond to."
However, she has found her passion is in performing work that she has been involved in writing, rather than the scripted work she did with Arcade theatre company.
"It was enjoyable, but I don’t particularly like taking someone else’s words. I like studying them, but performing them less so.
"What I really love about what we do is it’s our stories, our words, so I have an immediate connection to it and make other people feel things which is really, really special."
They both know what it is like to sit in the audience of a show and feel "really seen", as if it was made for them personally.
"I want people to feel that, to feel like we got inside their heads and found what they needed and delivered it to them in a way they wanted to hear it. It can be life changing or moment changing."
They wrote Gaslight Me in 2021 and performed it for the first time in 2022, during the Covid-affected Fringe Festival. As a result they got to do it again in July of that year.
"It’s a devised piece, so we just started talking to each other about the times we’ve lied, and watched the movie Gaslight - bad movie, super bad."
It is a story which had its beginnings in an "unfortunate" breakup Colombo had that turned out to be "very fortunate".
"It turned into this deep dive into the concept of lying and all the ways we come across lies in our lives - how we do it to ourselves, and we do it to other people and how society as a whole does it to us as well," Wallace says.
"Which doesn’t sound like a comedy, but it is."
Colombo says they talked about all the little white lies people tell themselves and others and how much lying is part of the framework that gets people through the day.
"Which lies do we need to get rid of, which ones we keep. What are the better ways we can talk to ourselves?
"And bras, how annoying bras are. I talk about bras a lot - boy oh boy, I really don’t like bras."
Wallace says the show resonates with people because lying is universal, especially lying to oneself.
"It’s probably the bit we were like ‘it’s probably just us’ [about], but every time you perform it people give us feedback or the way they respond to the show, you realise we are all doing this to ourselves - it’s the laughter of acknowledgement."
Colombo says it is a very honest show and reflects the pressure people in their 30s feel to have achieved certain things, but without quite getting there.
"People really feel the honesty, and also it is set here in Dunedin. We talk about this all happening outside Union Cafe in Port Chalmers. It’s like a really Dunedin show and Dunedin art translates globally all of the time."
They did find though that a Christchurch audience responded to different aspects of the show than Dunedin.
The audience is also keen to share their breakup stories after the show.
"They’re like ‘that has happened to me’ or [tell us] something audacious an ex-partner has done to them.
"That is part of the universal nature of it; we can all relate to a trash ex-partner."
It enables the audience to have a laugh about all those challenges in life.
"It’s funny. We still laugh and we wrote it. We still have a giggle even with the intensity of the subjects."
After Dunedin, they took the show to Christchurch, and having won the New Zealand touring award at the Dunedin Fringe also took it to the New Zealand Fringe Festival in Wellington.
"We weren’t sure it was going to translate outside us talking in a room with our friends, and then after Christchurch we thought ‘this actually works’ - and ... in Wellington it worked again."
In Wellington they were nominated for an Adelaide tour award, but did not receive it. They also won Best Emerging Company.
"When it came out, we were on the phone to each other and said ‘oh well, why don’t we go [to Adelaide] anyway’.
"We back the show. People seem to like the show and we want to keep doing it."
They have found every time they do the show it gets better. So that is why they decided to bring it back to Dunedin for one night tonight.
"Dunedin saw the first two versions and it’s only got better. It didn’t sit right with us that Wellington saw the best version and not Dunedin, so we decided to do it in Dunedin the best it’s ever been, and then take it away."
They also premiered their second show, Flow, at the New Zealand Fringe. In this show Colombo is taking a bath after a family funeral, taking time out to reflect on all the things people grieve. They are also developing a third in response to Flow.
"A lot of people said to us it wasn’t that funny, not as funny as Gaslight Me."
That was because it was drama, Colombo says. Yet it still hit the mark, with Colombo winning outstanding performer at the Dunedin Fringe Awards, and the show being nominated for best in fringe, best in theatre and City of Literature Beyond Words.
"OK you want funny - we hear you. Here is a full-hour of stand-up."
So the new piece, Baroness, starts with a historical figure, Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1916), whose life they describe as "incredible".
"We’re talking about the 1800s but it’s amazing how much still resonates in 2023."
For Colombo it has been interesting to "genre play" and see what they can produce in different realms, challenging themselves.
"It teaches you stuff each time."
They are booked into Adelaide Fringe for March next year with Gaslight, and then return to Dunedin in time for the fringe festival with the new show.
"And then jump into the Fringe the next day. It’s going to be fun and they’re different shows as well," Wallace says.
Gaslight Me, Te Whare O Rukutia, tonight, 7.30pm-8.30pm